Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical (2022)
Director: Matthew Warchus
Screenwriter: Dennis Kelly
Starring: Alisha Weir, Lashana Lynch, Emma Thompson, Stephen Graham, Andrea Riseborough
Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical, besides being a bit of a mouthful, is the adaptation of the multi-award-winning Broadway play which in itself is an adaptation of the beloved children’s book by Roald Dahl. It tells the story of a young girl, Matilda (Alisha Weir), who uses her incredible intelligence and supernatural powers to tackle the truly despicable adults in her life.
Her parents, the Wormwoods, are unloving, uncouth, and unaware – succinctly shown in the opening sequence as Mrs Wormwood (Andrea Riseborough) doesn’t realise she’s pregnant in the delivery room and Mr Wormwood (Stephen Graham) cries out ‘you mean my son is a girl?’. Emma Thompson plays a delightfully deranged Miss Trunchbull; the murdering, child-hating, torture-loving headmistress who is every student’s worst nightmare. Matilda (Alisha Weir) has got her hands full.
The young cast are a sight to behold, the dance numbers are a fantastic spectacle, and the songs are as catchy, funny, and as left field as you would expect from songwriter Tim Minchin. “We Are Revolting Children” is an absolute banger with a nice nod to one of Dahl’s other classics, “When I Grow Up” will melt even the meanest Wormwood’s heart, and the “School Song” is almost too clever for its own good. Each song is delivered with the crisp enunciation and emphatic mouth movements of any talented stage actor… which only gets vaguely irritating. The well-spoken children stand in direct juxtaposition to the Wormwoods and their rough East-end accents, because it’s always good to have a clear indicator who the baddies are.
It is difficult to review an adaptation as a stand-alone piece of cinema when so much of its success is wrapped up in the other versions of itself. On one hand, this means a large proportion of the audience is already familiar with – if not in adoration of – the story. The benefit of this is that any plot holes or missing beats are less jarring. On the other hand, criticism will be swift if the hype is not lived up to.
Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical has three other versions to be compared to. The original book, the 1996 film directed by Danny Devito (interestingly, due to the amount of time between these two films, many parents of the children currently falling in love with Weir’s Matilda grew up loving Mara Wilson for her portrayal of the put upon genius) and the stage show by Tim Minchin.
The film is a pretty close adaptation of the book, though one of the book’s charms is that everything else is so ordinary, thus highlighting Matilda’s extraordinariness. Everything in the musical version is too colourful, too over the top, too gothic, too weird. An obvious nod to its stage roots this may be, but it does dampen Matilda’s uniqueness.
There are some notable differences between adaptations and quite a lot of the book’s plot seems to have been glossed over or omitted entirely, presumably to make space in the running time for the songs. A successful adaptation does not need to be word for word with the original source, but unfortunately for the musical it seems some of the warmth of Dahl’s tale has been stripped away. As has that tenacious spirit of Matilda herself; musical Matilda has been granted extra powers and seems to wield them perfectly almost instantly, removing the underdog quality to her character that is common in children’s stories. It just makes it so much more satisfying when an underdog triumphs.
Some of the characters have also been affected by the adaptation: Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch), Nigel (Ashton Robertson) and Lavender (Rei Yamauchi Fulker) are a little simpering, their share of sass given to Matilda and Mrs Phelps the librarian; Sindu Vee’s turn as Mrs Phelps is a good addition, adding a level of comfort and safety previously missing from what is quite a bleak and disturbing story of child abuse, plus another adult who cares for Matilda can be no bad thing. Vee is a stand-up comedian, and her ability to deliver dead-pan humour is a refreshing change from the high-octane shenanigans going on inside Crunchem Hall.
One major difference is the addition of Matilda’s psychic ability to tell Miss Honey’s (Lashana Lynch) origin story. While The Burning Woman Hurtling Through the Air with Dynamite in her Hair, Over Sharks and Spiky Objects, Caught by the Man Locked in the Cage is funny and allows for some pretty impressive set design and a modicum of extra peril, it doesn’t really add to the plot. It’s an extremely elaborate way to show Trunchbull’s relationship to Miss Honey, which could have been solved by a simple ‘she’s my aunt’ from Lashana Lynch.
Before settling down to watch Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical, be prepared to engage a pretty high suspension of disbelief. About the same level as you might when watching Grease. There’s an army of thirteen-year-olds playing kids eight years their junior, and every one of them is precocious with a capital P, but Matilda the Musical is an enjoyable romp. It’s a great story with great songs and a great cast, even if for some this particular adaptation won’t hit those nostalgic highs of the book or the 1996 film.